BlogErik Loyer : Eloquent interactive media

Go InSight: Composing a Musical Summation of Every Mission to Mars (Part 2)


Documentary music is something that’s interested me ever since hearing Steve Reich’s Different Trains for the first time in the early 90’s, and for me that work is still the high point of the genre. Reich masterfully combines train, siren, and vocal samples with string quartet writing emulating their pitches and rhythms, never losing sight of the overall musicality of the piece even as he allows the documentary material to shape his compositional process.

After taking a first stab at an approach to sonifying the history of Mars exploration which treated each month as a separate beat, I got curious about what it would sound like to quantize the data at a coarser level—the year. I knew that following that approach would yield a much shorter piece filled with distinct chords, each of which would represent all of the launches from a single year simultaneously, yielding a different set of creative opportunities.

I dropped the programmatic approach to harmony I took in my first attempt, and adopted a more expressive method, feeling my way through the narrative of Mars exploration, its highs and lows. At around the same time I got the idea to pair the music with text summarizing the outcome of each mission, in many cases condensed from the text of the official NASA timeline itself. This turned the timeline into a kind of poem, in which each line correlated with a note in the music.

The piece starts with three indistinct chords, representing the first tentative attempts—all ostensible failures but still resulting in valuable learning and experience. Then, another three chords, louder and more directed in their movement, culminating in a high interval matching the first two successful Mars landings in 1975. Next come two low steps representing not only several unsuccessful missions, but also the long gap of time between those efforts and the beginning of what would grow into a golden age of Mars exploration.

As we enter the next series of launches, the proportion of successful missions grows by leaps and bounds, and we begin to get melodic phrases (including a partial quote of John Williams’ theme from Close Encounters, a film which my time at Vandenberg Air Force Base was reminding me of at every turn), rising to a single note marking the launch of the InSight mission.

Here’s the finished version of the piece:

I like the idea of adding to this composition as future Mars missions are launched, but that last note begs the question of how to go about adding new notes, since the existing piece is so clearly aimed at treating the InSight launch as its climax. When I add a new note for a new mission, should I keep that previous note the same? Or alter it so the new note is now the high point of the piece? At the moment, my gut tells me I should leave the earlier notes unchanged, building a new phrases instead of trying to always treat the latest mission as the melodic culmination of all that came before.

Another question: if the InSight launch had failed, would I have felt the need to go back and alter that last note to reflect the disappointing outcome? Again, I think not. Keep the note the same, and let it resonate with the text which would have to be added describing the actual outcome. Let the piece be true to the moment in which it was created—avoid revisionist compositional history.

If you’d like to try your hand at performing this piece, I’ve put together sheet music which you can find below.

Go Insight sheet music

Many thanks to NASA Social for this opportunity.

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